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Can I speak with candour?

Can I speak with candour
Silicon Valley – where else? – has a new ‘thing’, apparently. It’s called Radical Candor. We’re English, so we won’t be mean and quibble about the spelling. After all, there’s an important point here. (And a book and a website. And a company and a TED Talk…)

Helen Rumbelow interviewed its co-founder, Kim Scott for The Times recently to find out more about what it means, and where it draws the line between showing complete honesty rather a form that might – if we’re being frank – be called ‘brutal’. The company’s website provides a handy matrix, with axes labelled ‘Care Personally’ and ‘Challenge Directly’. Radical Candor represents the apex of both, trumping ‘Ruinous Empathy’ and ‘Obnoxious Aggression’ and leaving ‘Manipulative Insincerity’ in a dark corner, presumably crying into its hankie or pulling the legs off insects.

As The Times observed, this sounds terribly un-British. We are, after all, the country that has been the subject of a long-running web meme that helps non-Brits to understand that what we say to them is neither what we meant, nor what they thought we meant. When, for example, we say “That’s a very brave proposal”, others might think we mean “He thinks I have courage”. What we actually meant, of course, is “You are insane.”

Far be it from me to suggest that some forms of journalism are only a step up from cut and paste, but this British ‘diplomacy issue’ was even once the subject of a column in The Economist. The comments on the article included one that suggested – rather tactlessly, we thought – an alternative viewpoint to that favoured by our colonial cousins:

What the American says: “Awesome”
What the American means: anything between barely acceptable up to remarkably good
What the foreigner asks himself: why are these people so binary?

To be fair, however, the Economist article started with a humorous statement of a very real workplace problem:

A friend of mine was recently told by his boss that his position at work was “unassailable”: in British office-speak that is a severe warning which has sent him hastily looking for a new job.

Anyone who has watched a British news broadcast in which a Prime Minister reports that one of their Cabinet continues to have their full and unequivocal support will understand, even if an English-speaking visitor might wonder why the subtitles don’t give a more… um, candid translation.

To be frank, the Radical Candor proposition reminded me of something we have long-considered a British workplace problem: those moments that we tend to call ‘Difficult Conversations’. Those conversations – usually initiated with the harmless sounding but fear-inducing question ‘Could you spare me a few minutes?’ – when a manager must tackle under-performance or inappropriate behaviour.

To be even more frank, there are several reasons we call these conversations ‘Difficult’. Managers often tolerate excuses, not least to avoid potential conflict. Employees, meanwhile, are often left feeling they have been told rather engaged, that feedback has come too late – or that it is only ever negative.

Reading the Times article – and the associated online materials – I can’t help but think that what’s actually central here are human relationships. Something poorly served by dishonesty or by patterns of behaviour that withhold more than reveal, but also something that – if clumsily handled – can damage the work and the culture they work with. As our Difficult Conversations programmes stress, it is crucial that managers ‘adopt an assertive and confident approach to handling difficult discussions’, but the other bullet points listed in the programme objectives are of equal importance, not least in that managers must be able to:

  • deliver effective feedback using a recognised model
  • handle negative responses and minimise negative reactions
  • manage their own and others’ emotions
  • use their emotional intelligence effectively

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The Radical Candor movement has a point, and an important one. There is only a finite amount of room under any office’s carpet tiles for those aspects everyone is reluctant to address, and some things – and some people – need calling out from time to time. But both giving and receiving feedback are complex skills that need practice, preferably in environments where initial shortcomings don’t lead to sullen silences, Elastoplast or abrupt departures. And too much candour can do as much long-term damage as too little. As Scott is quoted as saying in her Times interview:

“We’ve seen, in your country and mine, communications styles that are obnoxious; they sell, but they’re terrible for civil discourse. I believe this can get us to a better place.”

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